Alastor: by P. B. Shelley - Critical Analysis

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      Introduction: Alastor was written in 1816. It is an allegory condemning self-centered idealism and pleading on behalf of human love. It is a vaguely autobiographical account of a young poet's unsuccessful attempt to recapture his envisioned ideal.

      The Title: In composing Alastor, Shelley was attempting to dramatize a conflict of allegiance between what might be called the law for things (natural law) and the law for man (the law of love). Shelley used this title 'Alastor’, which is the Greek name for a revengeful demon who was believed to drive his victims into deserted places, to ''describe the Nemesis of solitary souls". This Greek Alastor is an evil genius. But Shelley's poem does not represent solitude as evil. The world solitude occurs only three times in the whole piece, and in only one of these (line 414) could it even remotely be construed as having an evil significance:

But on his heart its solitude returned
And he forebore.

      These lines may mean simply that the feeling of solitude (i.e., empty loneliness in the absence of his beloved) returned to grip the poet's heart and to dissaude him from lingering over the flowers.

      Theme of the Poem: Hoffman thinks that the "idea of solitude as an avenging genius" is the central theme of Alastor. But he significantly adds that Shelley did not have the classical conception of 'Alastor' in mind, when he composed the poem. Instead, according to Hoffman, he was thinking of Wordsworthian solitude as set forth in the picture of the Solitary in The Excursion.

      The real driving force in the poem is love, which obtains a complete hold over the intellect, imagination, and senses of the protagonist. According to Shelley's preface, the intellectual faculties, the imagination, and the functions of the senses have their respective requisitions on the sympathy of corresponding powers in other human beings. The poet is represented as uniting these requisitions and attaching them to a single image. When that image appears in the form of a maiden, the poet responds on all levels.

      Seated beside him, talking solemnly of "knowledge and truth and virtue," the maiden at first evokes an intellectual response in the poet, for these are the "thoughts most dear to him". Soon the young lady, herself a poet, turns to the subject of poesy, and, in a voice partly affected by sobs, raises "wild numbers" as she fingers her "strange harp". Poetry the language of the imagination, is also familiar ground to a youth long since acquainted with all "great or good or lovely" things which the "sacred past in truth or fable consecrates." Presently however; it is time for the "functions of the sense". Rising suddenly and impatiently to her feet, the maiden gives every indication of a desire to embrace the poet. Uninitiated though he is in the arts of courtship, the youth responds to her rather obvious mating signals. With the "frantic gesture arid short breathless cry" not uncommon in early Shelley heroines, the maiden has just "folded his frame in her dissolving arms" when the now throughly erotic vision ends, dark sleep floods in, and the youth awakes into a dismal loneliness. His intellect, his imagination, and his senses have all established bonds with corresponding powers in the maiden, or to put the matter simply; he is in love. Thereafter his every effort is directed toward reunion with the dream-maiden, failing which he wastes away to death.

      The poem is an attempt to show, more or less symbolically; the intensity of one highly sensitive being's search for the "communities" of sympathy. The curse-motif is in the title and the preface alone. The erotic vision leading to a passionate quest was originally, and remained finally; the real central motif of Shelley's poem.

      Shelley's Development as Philosophical and Psychological Poet: Although the work suffers from the conflict of motives under which it was written, Alas tor was a key poem in Shelley's development as a philosophical and psychological poet: it was the first of the major poems to undertake an experiment with what may be called psyche-epipsyche strategy of which he was to make considerable use in the central story of The Revolt of Islam, which was to become one of the major interrelated themes in his first great poem, Prometheus Unbound, and which was to be used at the highest possible level in Epipsychidion, Adonais, and The Triumph of Life. Since Alastor is primarily a picture of a state of mind, one would expect that, if necessitarianism is involved at all, it would be most likely to appear in the form of psychological determinism. Alastor pictures a superior and exemplary young man as subject to subliminal necessitarian drives: he cannot escape from pursuing an ideal, even though he may sometimes suspect that his ideal is an illusion, and never learn otherwise prior to death. Instead of regarding Alastor as a spirit of evil, he associated the word with a particular form of psychological determinism. The youthful poet of Alastor could not have chosen to act otherwise than he does act: the inevitability of his fate is indeed, as we have seen, the fundamental implication of the poem. Therefore, a special kind of necessity is at work in the poem.

      The long elegiac conclusion is one curious episode which brings out the full significance of necessitarian doctrine in Alastor, and its relation to the psyche-epipsyche theme. After the poet's miraculous voyage, he seeks out a natural sepulcher in which to compose himself for death; he comes to a dark well into whose mirror-like waters, he pauses to gaze, seeing his reflection:

as the human heart,
Gazing in dreams over the gloomy grave,
Sees its own treacherous likeness there....

      As he watches, less acutely conscious of his own image than filled with an intense awareness which is subliminally focused on that image.

      Treatment of The Principle of Love in Alastor: The poet of Alastor is humanized (though also done to death) by the "imperious necessity" of love. The essential conflict is set forth in the crucial episode. The spirit of nature is the spirit of solitude: the poet is half in love with Necessity the beneficent but inhuman law of the natural world. But his greater need, the need which drives him on with an intensity so great that it wastes and kills his body is the unrequited need for human sympathy. In a very real sense, the conflict may be described as the love of necessity versus the necessity of love.

      The principle of love gradually came to occupy the central position in Shelley's thought. The theme of love has been analyzed in Alastor as a necessary concomitant of the individual mind, but it has not yet been purged of its fleshly attributes, nor has it gone beyond the sphere of imperious individual need.

      Influences of Other Writers on Shelley: Alastor belongs to the years of quixotic adventure, of intellectual, imaginative ferment which preceded Shelley's final departure from England. It is the first poem that marks the subsidence of that fermentation. The clarifying of the wine of his poetry. The potent influence of Wordsworth, especially The Excursion, is traceable in Alastor, but rather in the intellectual conception of the poem as stated in the preface than in its imaginative texture. That owes more to Southey than to Wordsworth. The scenery of Shelley's poem is different from that of The Excursion, and the wanderings of the poet in Shelley's more poetical imagination and more harmonious verse are more reflective of the adventures of Jhalaba by 'bitumen lakes,' in 'secret caves', among 'the fallen rowers of Babylon', and mysterious boats which sail without much guidance or propulsion by river and sea. The lawlessness of Southey's Oriental scenery, its suggestions of the weird and awe-inspiring, appealed more to Shelley's imagination than Wordworth's quiet hills and dales: and the impressions of river and forest scenery had been intensified by his own experience of voyaging by boat down the swift current of the Rhine and his life on the borders of Windsor Forest.

      If the framework and scenery of Alastor owe something to Southey; the spirit of the poem is entirely Shelleyan. It is an expression of the two most ardent aspirations of Shelley's poetry which is all one musical cry of longing and regret:

O cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?

      Style of the Poem: The poem contains 750 lines of blank verse, and Shelley's use of the theme is all diffusion, and he shows but little art in the management of it. This poem is meant to be a narrative poem, but it has not enough incident, and constantly tends to become lyrical. Therefore, it is remembered not for the impression made by the whole story; for that is vague and weak, but for separate lyrical passages.

      In Alastor, Shelley showed himself a greater master of blank verse than any other poet of the time. He was the only one of the Romantic poets who wrote blank verse that was quite original and yet never prosaic. He made it swifter and more lyrical than it had ever been before, distinguishing it from prose without any contortions of language. In the blank verse of Alastor, we can see influences of Wordsworth, Milton and Shakespeare; but it is not a patchwork of styles. He uses the manner of each poet for his own purposes and subject to his own inspiration.

      The influence of Wordsworth is more general, and shows itself not so much in any tricks of language as in idea and in the use of blank verse to express them. Shelley knew better than Wordsworth the difference between poetry and prose. His passages are not flat, like Wordsworth's; and all through the poem there is an impetus of continual emotion which we never find in Wordsworth's blank verse. That impetus quickens Shelley's best poetry and compensates for its lack of weight and richness.

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